Bay Area Bites Guide to 4 Favorite Spots for Springtime Salads in San Francisco

The Cobber salad (Kelly O'Mara)

As the weather gets warmer, we tend to put away the comfort foods and put down the cookies. It feels like time for a healthy start to spring -- plants are in bloom and fresh veggies abound. There's a reason we all want to pack up picnics this time of year. Here are a few places to load up on tasty and filling salads for you to eat outside under the sun.

Blue Barn

Blue Barn on Chestnut St.
Blue Barn on Chestnut St. (Kelly O'Mara/KQED)

Blue Barn now has three locations -- two in San Francisco and one in Marin -- but it started in 2007 on Chestnut Street, just like its neighbor, Pluto's, which is included in our list below. The Chestnut location is small, primarily for take-out, with just a handful of seats inside at a communal table and bar, and four small tables on the sidewalk outside. The small shop is packed with Marina residents on most evenings, but the lines move fairly quickly.

Blue Barn was packed on a Tuesday evening
Blue Barn was packed on a Tuesday evening (Kelly O'Mara/KQED)

The restaurant is run by Chef Sam Josi, Nate Valentine, and Stryker Scales, who are also the group behind the Tipsy Pig, Umami, and Mamacita. After the success of the Chestnut restaurant, they opened a similar to-go location in the Corte Madera Town Center in Marin in 2012, near where Stryker grew up. The third location, on Polk Street, is slightly larger and includes more room for customers to enjoy drinks while eating their salads and sandwiches.

All three locations source most of their ingredients from nearby farms, with much of it coming from Sonoma's Oak Hill Farm.

While you can make your own U-Pick salads from the bar of ingredients behind the counter, the house items are guaranteed to be an excellent mix. We tried the Cobber, Blue Barn's version of the Cobb salad, which comes with romaine, roasted chicken, smoked bacon, boiled egg, avocado, cherry tomatoes, and garlic croutons. It was a creamy and filling, though not inexpensive, version of the classic salad, with an interesting flavor and bite — not at all bland, like Cobb salads can be.

Blue Barn's spring salad
Blue Barn's spring salad (Kelly O'Mara/KQED)

The other classic salad we ordered was the Spring Salad -- mixed greens, arugula, roasted asparagus, beans, radish, almonds, quinoa, and parmesan reggiano. It has more flavor and was lighter than the Cobber, but not as hearty without the chicken and avocado.

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You can add chicken, steak, salmon, bacon, avocado, or other toppings to the prepared salads. A side of fries might make the whole thing less healthy, but no less delicious. There are also large hot sandwiches and four kinds of grilled cheese to go with your salad. Exact items vary seasonally, but the classics are generally available in some form.

Order ahead to have your meal ready to pick-up and then find a less crowded spot to sit outside and enjoy the food. There is a five item maximum for pick-up.

Blue Barn Gourmet
2105 Chestnut St. [map]
San Francisco, CA 94123
Ph: (415) 441-3232
Hours: Mon-Thu, 11am-8:30pm; Fri-Sun, 11am-8pm
Facebook: Blue Barn Gourmet
Price: $$ (salads $12-16)

Pluto's

Pluto's in the Marina
Pluto's in the Marina (Kelly O'Mara/KQED)

Just around the corner from its trendier neighbor, Blue Barn, Pluto's was once the Marina hotspot for yuppies looking for inexpensive, tasty salads. In 1995, co-founders Gerry Bugas and Louis Kimball opened this spot just off Chestnut Street as a place for healthy fast food.

The idea for quick, healthy, low-cost salads and sandwiches caught on with a vengeance. The duo, who met while both working in food service at the Stanford Court Hotel, soon followed the Marina location with one in Palo Alto and another in the Sunset. Today, there are nine locations, from San Luis Obispo to Chico. It’s no coincidence that the restaurant does particularly well near college campuses, where students are hard-pressed to find cheap and easy food they don’t have to make themselves.

The salad bar at Pluto's
The salad bar at Pluto's (Kelly O'Mara/KQED)

Since it opened, Pluto's -- full name Pluto's Fresh Food for a Hungry Universe -- has had a space and astronomy theme. The menu items all have planet or star-related names. The decor is astronomical and, compared to many of the high-end shops and restaurants in the Marina, can feel a bit outdated. But don't let the kitsch fool you. The salads are hearty, inexpensive, and good.

Work your way down the cafeteria-style bar, either creating your own salad from the toppings available or picking from the customized creations. There's also a carving station for meats and sandwiches (all in the $7-9 range), and sides like mac n' cheese or sweet potato fries. Desserts are also made in-house and appear quite intense. It can be a little confusing with all the options, but just point at what you want and it'll make its way to your plate.

I ordered the "Mars Detox" salad -- I told you the food all had astronomy-inspired names -- and added steak, which the servers behind the bar carved right in front of me. The Mars Detox comes with mixed greens, cabbage, and kale, topped with apples, avocado, pumpkin seeds, and shredded beets. While the meat was a bit tough, overall it was a excellent combination of flavors that all complimented each other surprisingly well.

The Mars Detox salad with steak
The Mars Detox salad with steak (Kelly O'Mara/KQED)

My husband ordered the "Sky Falling" salad, which comes with spinach, quinoa, carrots, green beans, cranberries, and roasted butternut squash. Often, I find, a salad needs something to center it, and in this case the butternut squash was the overwhelming core of the salad. It was a bit less tangy than the Mars Detox, but felt more homespun and rich. Either would make a full and filling meal.

Pluto's Sky Falling salad
Pluto's Sky Falling salad (Kelly O'Mara)

When it first opened, over 20 years ago, Pluto's had a line around the block. Now, it's far less crowded than Blue Barn or plenty of the other dinner options in the Marina. And, your first inclination might be to write it off. But don't. It was actually my husband's favorite.

Pluto's
3258 Scott St. [map]
San Francisco, CA 94123
Ph: (415) 775-8867
Hours: Mon-Fri, 11am-10pm; Sat-Sun, 10:30am-10pm
Facebook: Pluto's Fresh Food
Twitter: @PlutosFreshFood
Price range: $ (salads $7-9)

Cafe du Soleil

Cafe du Soleil is a small cafe
Cafe du Soleil is a small cafe (Kelly O'Mara/KQED)

Tucked in a small storefront in SoMa, Cafe du Soleil is a surprisingly good quality French cafe masquerading as a to-go lunch spot for nearby office workers. (It is also unrelated to the Cafe du Soleil on Fillmore.)

There are just three small tables crammed inside, and another two outside on the sidewalk, but don't be fooled by appearances. Run by a husband-wife duo, this is an authentic French cafe. When I visited, the table of men arguing in French as they drank their coffee would have been at home in Paris.

Cafe du Soleil is small
Cafe du Soleil is small (Kelly O'Mara/KQED)

What the place has going for it isn't necessarily ambiance, but top-quality food at very affordable prices. There are small breakfast items -- fruit with Greek yogurt, ham and cheese croissants, or Nutella and strawberries on fresh baguettes (which sort of counts as a well-rounded breakfast).The Semifreddis bread is delivered each morning. But the real thing people come for is the salad and sandwiches at lunch.

I ordered the small Maison salad, which is fancy French for "house salad." The large is slightly more money, but the small is plenty big enough for a lunch. Even though the Maison is a simple house salad, it's surprisingly nuanced and flavorful, with blue cheese, avocado, cucumbers, tomatoes, red peppers, and a hard-boiled egg. It was whipped up fresh by the owner as soon as I ordered it.

The Maison salad in the setting sunlight
The Maison salad in the setting sunlight (Kelly O'Mara/KQED)

I also tried one of the cafe's classics, the chicken and orzo. The chicken and orzo salad and the nicoise salad are the most popular at Cafe du Soleil. That may explain why they were out of orzo when I ordered late in the afternoon, but the owner, who just goes by Michael, said he'd substitute in some avocado instead, and it came together rather well.

Chicken and orzo salad
Chicken and orzo salad (Kelly O'Mara/KQED)

The chicken and orzo salad is made with spinach and romaine hearts, cherry tomatoes, basil pesto, and a substantial heaping of Parmigiano-Reggiano. It was the combination of the pesto and cheese that gave it a particularly tasty flavor and made it my favorite of the two salads, though any of the offerings would likely make an excellent lunch option during the week.

Cafe du Soleil
345 3rd St. [map]
San Francisco, CA 94107
Ph: (415) 699-6154
Hours: Mon-Fri, 9am-4:30pm
Facebook: Cafe du Soleil
Price range: $ (small salads, $6-9; large $10-15)

Little Gem

Little Gem is in Hayes Valley
Little Gem is in Hayes Valley (Kelly O'Mara/KQED)

On the other end of the spectrum from Cafe du Soleil, Little Gem, in Hayes Valley, is basically a modern hipster foodie's dream. The glass-walled cafe, on the corner of Grove and Gough, is quiet and fairly large, with plenty of people working on laptops at the wood tables -- all of which were made out of a single tree from Marin. There's also outdoor seating on the medium-sized patio in front of the restaurant.

Right now, the cafe serves lunch on weekdays until 5 p.m. and then switches over to dinner. On weekends, they also serve breakfast from 9 to 11:30 a.m. While the salads, sandwiches, and bowls are well worth a visit, plenty of people just come in for a coffee, from Counter Culture Coffee, and a pastry.

Little Gem's counter and kitchen
Little Gem's counter and kitchen (Kelly O'Mara/KQED)

Little Gem, founded by three friends, one of whom is chef Dave Cruz of Nobu and Bouchon fame, is not the kind of place that has a massive menu. There are a few select items, but those items are high-quality. The restaurant sources locally (as possible), with the meat and salmon coming from Marin Sun Farms, Five Dot Ranch, and Ora King Salmon.

With only three salads on the menu, I tried the butter lettuce and red quinoa salad and decided to mix it with a rice bowl, instead of a second salad.

The butter lettuce was sweet and flavorful, and it was nicely set off by the sprinkling of quinoa, toasted almonds, and sliced beets. My main concern was there simply wasn't very much of it. You could eat the whole thing for a light snack. It's more meant to be slowly enjoyed and appreciated, than wolfed down.

The butter lettuce and red quinoa salad
The butter lettuce and red quinoa salad (Kelly O'Mara/KQED)

I paired that salad, though, with the curried cauliflower and sweet potato rice bowl, which sounded like it'd go exceptionally well with some slow-roasted pork added on top. You can add steak, salmon, pulled chicken, or a hen egg to any of the bowls or salads, or just have them on the side.

Curried cauliflower rice bowl
Curried cauliflower rice bowl (Kelly O'Mara/KQED)

The bowl was a heartier meal, with the cauliflower and sweet potatoes making a nice tasty base that was complimented by the pork. All together it made for an excellent lunch overall, but that's not exactly an inexpensive option. This is the kind of place where you get what you pay for.

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Little Gem
400 Grove St. [map]
San Francisco, CA 94102
Ph: (415) 914-0501
Hours: Tues-Fri, 11am-9pm; Sat-Sun, 9am-9pm (opening on Mondays starting in May)
Facebook: Little Gem
Twitter: @_LittleGem
Instagram: littlegem.restaurant
Price range: $$ (salads $10-15)

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